9 Creative Tips for Dealing with Nostalgic Clutter

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Pile of old toys
Anneka / Shutterstock

We end up with a lot of sentimental stuff. Cards, presents, photos, clothing, and children’s artwork pile up and we just don’t have the heart to part with it. But in the back of our minds, we know less is more. 

Perhaps you’re downsizing. Maybe you want to minimize clutter for more storage. Or perhaps a loved one passed and now you’re tasked with discarding the markings of occasions, milestones, and much more. 

Emotionally charged items can be tough to evaluate rationally. These tips on sorting, categorizing, and curating your collection of keepsakes will help you kick clutter to the curb. Take your house from an episode of Hoarders to Marie Kondo by focusing on the essentials that still hold special meaning and getting rid of excess. Once you’ve managed to simplify and curate your heirlooms and mementos, you’ll experience the clarity and peace of mind that comes with surrounding yourself with what’s important.

Sort by Category

Organizer extraordinaire Marie Kondo is a fan of “tidying” (as she puts it) by category, not by location or room. She also says that sentimental items are the last sort of clutter that you should clear out. Practice with your clothing, books, papers, and miscellany (the order she recommends) then move on to mementos.

Get it Together

Go through drawers, closets, the basement, the attic, filing cabinets, under the bed, etc., and gather all of your keepsakes together in one large area. This way, you only have to go through the culling process once, not once in every single room of the house. 

Classify

Once you’ve got it all in one spot, start sorting your belongings into categories like collections, pictures, and documents. Sorting items by type provides structure, so you can focus on one group at a time. Start with whichever category seems easiest to you.

Focus on What to Keep

Another Kondo-ism, instead of focusing on all the stuff you’re getting rid of, focusing on what you want to save can help keep you from getting overwhelmed.

Ask for Help

Having a friend around who can offer a second opinion and keep you on-task will help tremendously. Plus, another pair of eyes on your “keep” pile, might shame you into putting more into the “toss” pile. 

Piles

This is Sorting 101 and isn’t specific to nostalgia, but you want to have separate piles, bins, or boxes to keep, throw, and donate. In fact, you should always have a container around that is dedicated to donating items. Damaged items immediately go in the throw pile. Anything that’s still useable can go in the donate pile. Although, when you’re sorting through the detritus of family life the donate pile tends to be the smallest. Only special items that deserve to take up space in your household belong in the keep pile. Then there’s the secret fourth pile, “revisit”…

Revisit

Maybe an item doesn’t “spark joy,” as Kondo would say, but you’re still reluctant to part with it. Make a separate pile for sentimental items that you just aren’t sure about. Once you’re done going through everything, you can pick apart the pile again. Anything that you’re still unsure of can stay. Perhaps you could put it in a box and revisit it next year. Try not to put everything in this pile though, or you won’t make any progress! 

Photos

Thankfully digital photos only take up space on a hard drive or phone, but most likely, you’ve still got hard copies all over the place. Kondo says family photos should be the final stage of your organizing process. And, she suggests, it should be a family affair so everyone can help while sharing memories together.

Same deal: Start by gathering all the photos and albums in the house into one place. Next, organize them by year. The first to go are duplicates. We used to get two prints of everything so we could give them away and now it’s biting us in the ass. Second: Any photos that are blurry, or just generally not good should go. Scan photos and upload them to a cloud, like Google photos for safekeeping, then throw out any prints you can do without. Make a scrapbook or albums out of the printed photos you kept.

For digital photos, Kondo takes the same approach as with everything else, focus on what you want to keep. For instance, say you have an external hard drive you’ve been dumping jpegs onto for years. When you go through them, start a new file on your computer and/or on a cloud to save the pictures you want to keep, instead of going through and deleting everything you don’t want. Then, once you’ve saved the good pics, you can delete the rest and create more space on the hard drive. This same approach works on your camera phone.

Repurpose

Reduce, reuse, recycle. Once you’ve streamlined your sentimental stuff and curated your collections, you can turn it into something new to be displayed and cherished. For instance, a life-long t-shirt collection can be re-purposed as a quilt. Frame family recipes to hang in the kitchen. Use a shadowbox to display pressed flowers or special concert tickets. Whatever you can do to keep precious heirlooms and mementos out of almost-as-precious storage space.